Garen Kazanc

‘Traitors,’ Land ‘Sellers,’ and Propaganda: How a Nationalist Can Become a Nation’s Worst Enemy


By Garen Kazanc

Ever since the cradle, many Armenians grew up with the notion that we’re a mighty race that can never be beat and whose warriors were top of the line. Legendary stories of outnumbered Armenian freedom fighters defeating scores and scores of Turkish soldiers were told to us repeatedly. We held these truths to be self-evident and never refrained from evoking these narratives during the recent war. But a major reality check happened on November 9 when a piece of paper was signed and the world these Armenians imagined in their heads suddenly came crashing down.

Indeed, we were all shocked. Even if you suspected the outcome of this war beforehand, the shock still reverberated powerfully. We were alarmed by the new arrangement of affairs: The Russian tanks suddenly rolling into Artsakh. The Artsakh Armenians abruptly leaving their homes. No one was able to keep up with the drastic turn of events. But there was a particular kind of shock that was also apparent among many, one that stemmed from utter disbelief. A disbelief that negates an adherence to a certain type of belief, or rather belief system, which many Armenians trusted and held dear throughout their lives. Not only were there lies told by the army and politicians, but this inherently meant all the most important figures throughout their lives, including friends, teachers, and family, who told them stories of this mighty race, had lied to them as well. But this was still far removed from the most critical lie of all: the one they told themselves. This was the real crisis at hand.

This is why the peace agreement was so catastrophic for these types of Armenians. Reality hit them hard when they realized that they were not only told these lies, but told themselves these lies and believed them, no questions asked. Even with the war’s end, they’re still looking for excuses that console and make themselves feel better (i.e. “we should’ve sent all our reserves!”, “we should’ve continued fighting!”, “not one inch!”). But in reality, this would have cost more young lives, the loss of more land, and an even more tumultuous future for the country and its people. In other words, the nationalist would become the nation’s worst enemy.

Nationalism in some ways is like Disneyland. It’s a happy place that is filled with myths and legends that make us feel good. But this place does not exist in real life. It’s a figment of our imagination and the more we invest our time in wandering this illusory state of mind, the more we are detached from the very nation we claim to protect. Yet, unlike Disneyland’s costly admission, nationalism is free. We are free to push nationalist dogmas and live with that imaginary world in our minds. But this is rather effortless and it’s the least you can do for your nation, whereas realism is hard and takes more time and energy, but is ultimately more fruitful and rewarding.

When it comes to Armenians, I have realized that those who boast about Armenia the most are actually the most harmful for Armenia. We have all seen the flags on the cars, keyboard warriors, Armenia flag emojis, and the sharing of Nzhdeh quotes. Yet, despite all its shiny paraphernalia and calls for the enlightenment of one’s identity, nationalism is blinding. You are blinded to a certain reality on the ground because you created some makeshift one in your head. During the war, this manifested itself in the “haxtelu enq!” or “next stop Baku” narratives which led many Armenians to this kind of unwarranted self-confidence.

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This kind of denialism is why the nationalist will always shift the blame onto others. This is apparent in their finger pointing at politicians and military commanders. Given that nationalists are so self-righteous in their idealism, they can’t possibly imagine that the problem might be found within the nation as a whole, or better yet themselves. They hardly can imagine that the world they created in their heads, filled with victories and grandeur, is the exact opposite of the reality of defeat they’re witnessing today. Alas, the scapegoating begins. This becomes apparent in the “selling” land accusation, a catchphrase that has become so prevalent in our discourse today. The idea that Gagik “sold” Ani to the Byzantines, Khatisian “sold” Kars to the Turks, and now Nikol “sold” Artsakh to the Azerbaijanis is nothing short of denialism throughout our history meant to deflect the collective responsibility of nationhood and pin it on just one man. If it weren’t for him, they say, we’d be victorious.

The use of the words “treason” or “traitor” is also quite noteworthy in this case. This word has been thrown around so much that its true, starker meaning, has been rendered obsolete. In this environment, it is used to compel people to keep them in line with the nationalist narrative: In other words, toe the nationalist party line or else. But this approach does nothing less than stifle creative ideas within public discourse by ridiculing or “cancelling” them. This kind of chastisement is especially dangerous for a community and country that is in desperate need of new and creative ideas to solve our current predicament. Granted, this is not something new. Calling someone a traitor was commonplace during the Soviet Union against its dissidents and whoever did not toe the party line was considered an enemy of the people. The term “politically correct” was born during these dark times as a way of creating a uniform, more “correct” language within public discourse. The norms that applied to that dark era are precariously still with us today.

Such dogmatic abstractions also make it very difficult to engage in any kind of constructive dialogue. For example, the realist will point out obvious deficiencies within the Armenian military only to be met with abstract responses from a so-called patriot. This prevents rational debate to resolve those issues and enters a realm that is not grounded in reality. Rational participants in the discussion are almost immediately shown the “traitor” card and the conversation has sunk to becoming nothing more than meaningless metaphysical static. An enduring complication when it comes to these discussions is that idealist rhetoric is difficult to refute or dispute given that no one can deny what’s being said. When criticizing the military, no one is denying the heroism of the soldier. When being open to sign away territory to prevent war, no one is denying that those beautiful lands are originally ours. But these responses do not help solve the issues at hand. As a result, such discourse ultimately stalls any creative thinking and ends any discussion towards new solutions. We are left with meaningless political discussions that offer no solutions and don’t serve any goal other than fulfilling some kind of unreasonable desire to be the loudest patriot in the room.

Hence, nationalism is lazy thinking. You bank on the idea that your identity, history, religion, and other mythologies will do the fighting for you whereas the realist will always say rationalism, modernism, science, and technology should be the top priorities. The more Armenians abandon nationalistic dogmas, the more they’ll realize that they have a lot of catching up to do. If we say, for example, that “Ararat is not ours” as opposed to saying that it is ours, we will find ways to actually make it ours rather than live with the thought of it being in our possession already. This can also apply to Artsakh. Why fight for Artsakh when you believe it’s all said and done? We all have run into people who said there will never be another war but if there were one, we would defeat them because the enemy is dumb and incapable of using the technology they had procured over the years. This kind of thinking leaves us parading around with an extravagant display of self-confidence yet leaves us more vulnerable due to this deep-seated inertia.

On that account, while it is true that 1994 was a victory in the minds of many, it can also be viewed as a loss. The loss came in the form of losing our capability of asking ourselves the tough questions and thinking more creatively about our country while doubling down on a successful but outdated strategy of a bygone era of warfare and convincing ourselves that we will win again. The defeat for the Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, created a fresh impetus for them to think creatively and question their understanding of warfare. They perhaps understood that nationalism and militarization go hand in hand. Think of Napoleon and Hitler. They rebuffed their military and also their nationalist rhetoric simultaneously. However, when you have nationalism but no militarization, you’re committing a fatal self-inflicting wound. This is where Armenia is at today.

This is not to say that fixing this mindset would have us winning every war. Indeed, there are many variables when it comes to warfare and statehood, some of which are entirely out of our hands. This is also not to say we should put down our arms, relinquish the Armenian nation-state and give in to our enemies’ desires of eradicating us as a people. The realist in me realizes that nation-states, for the time being, exist and are real structures of power. Nation-states do provide security and stability in a limited sense. We can hardly picture a world without them. They are real in a sociological sense and we must live with them no differently than we live with all other forms of unjustified structures of power throughout our lives. In reality, we must defend ourselves from the nationalism, racism, and fascistic tendencies of those who are hell-bent on eradicating us. And the best way to do that is to not fight myths and legends with more myths and legends, but to fight them with science, reason, and technology. This can apply not only towards warfare, but for many other sectors of Armenian society including the economy, politics, education and more. Harnessing this potential is crucial for the country of Armenia to become more of what it deserves to be.

Our news media outlets and academia also play a crucial role in this regard. As seekers of objective truth, the journalist or academic must break through subjective nationalist mythologies and allow for a full objective report or study of the Armenian predicament. This means asking the tough questions and admitting the faults and misgivings of the Armenian condition. The media’s attempt at manufacturing consent has turned itself into an industry of recycling myths that appeal to its readers with clickbait titles that have little to do with reality, but have everything to do with ratings and clicks. Yet in practice, we are seeing these news outlets become nothing short of propaganda machines molding the community to toe party lines. Ultimately, this has created an echo chamber of myths and legends that steered the reader and thereby the community away from the reality on the ground and towards some metaphysical realm where myths and legends have superimposed reality.

Just as the victory of the first war was in some ways a loss of our collective creative capacity, the defeat of this war can reverse that trend. Accepting defeat is the start to that process. Defeats are in a way helpful because they can provide an impetus for many to abandon bankrupt idealism and focus on new and more constructive approaches. Armenians can now open our minds to new ways of looking at themselves and the challenges ahead of them. Not only is this a time to reconstruct our infrastructure, roads, and foundation of our country, but it is also a time to reconstruct our frame of mind. This moment of reflection is test for us all as we learn from our mistakes and build upon our continued successes. That is the real mindset of a winner.

Born in Paris to Armenians from Turkey, Garen Kazanc moved to Los Angeles at a young age, where he attended and graduated from the Armenian Mesrobian School in 2006. He received a B.S. degree in sociology from California State University, Los Angeles. He has been an active member of Hamazkayin and the Armenian Poetry Project and has contributed articles to various Armenian newspapers and media outlets.


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